Kennedy, Scott Reintroduce Amendment to Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Kennedy, Scott Reintroduce Amendment to Religious Freedom Restoration Act

WASHINGTON – With the support of leaders from the civil rights, social justice and faith communities, Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-04) and Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03), Ranking Member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, today reintroduced legislation to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  The Do No Harm Act would clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. It comes in response to continued efforts across the country to cite religious belief as grounds to undermine Civil Rights Act protections, limit access to healthcare, and refuse service to minority populations.

Specifically, the Do No Harm Act would limit the use of RFRA in cases involving discrimination, child labor and abuse, wages and collective bargaining, access to health care, public accommodations, and social services provided through government contract. 

“Inherent in our nation’s right to religious freedom is a promise that my belief cannot be used to infringe on yours or do you harm,” said Congressman Joe Kennedy III. “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was intended to protect against such distortions of faith, not to justify them. Unfortunately in recent years, that legislation has been used as cover to erode civil rights protections, equal access to health care and child labor laws. In the face of mounting threats from an Administration that continues to back away from civil rights protections, the Do No Harm Act will restore the sacred balance between our right to religious freedom and our promise of equal protection under law.”

“RFRA has increasingly been used as a means to undermine the core rights of others under the guise that those rights interfere with the sincerely held religious beliefs of some,” said Congressman Bobby Scott. “Civil rights are a compelling government interest and worthy of our strongest support under the law and should not be superseded in the name of religious liberty.  Civil rights, labor laws, and access to health care should not be violated in the name of religious freedom under RFRA.  The Do No Harm Act restores protections for these areas under the law to ensure that RFRA can no longer be used a means to weaken civil rights and other protections."

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a Supreme Court case undermining the rights of religious minorities. But in recent years, the misapplication of RFRA has been used to deny health care coverage for employees, claim exemptions to civil rights law, and complicate justice in child labor and abuse cases.  

“Religious liberty is a foundational American value, enshrined in our Constitution and deserving of protection,” said Carmel Martin, Executive Vice President of Policy at the Center for American Progress. “But the Trump Administration has made clear that they intend to misuse the language of religious freedom to roll back LGBTQ equality and restrict reproductive rights – all while attacking true religious liberty with an unconstitutional Muslim Ban. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or RFRA) was written to protect free exercise of religion from unnecessary government intrusion, and for some time it did. But efforts by conservatives to redefine religious liberty have been percolating in state legislatures and rising through the courts, recently culminating in misguided Supreme Court rulings that have distorted the balance of religious liberty and other freedoms. The Trump Administration has seized on these overly broad interpretations of the law, which Congress never intended, and has signaled they plan to exploit RFRA to allow employers, landlords, and pharmacists to impose their beliefs on others at the expense of marginalized people, including LGBTQ Americans, women, and minority religions. Congress must act to restore the law to its true purpose, and to prevent the Trump Administration from distorting it to violate our rights.”

“We applaud Congressmen Bobby Scott and Joe Kennedy for introducing the Do No Harm Act,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value enshrined in our Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But claims of religious freedom should not be used as a license to discriminate. The Do No Harm Act is simple – it continues to protect religious liberty, but also protects victims of discrimination. There can be no religious exemption from basic human dignity.”

“The Do No Harm Act will protect the religious freedom of all Americans and we are proud to support it. Our country is strongest when we are all free to believe or not, as we see fit, and to practice our faith without hurting others,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Although RFRA certainly provides important protections for religious exercise, some have used it in ways that harm and deny other people’s rights. RFRA, of course, was never intended to do that. Our laws should be a shield to protect religious freedom and not a sword to harm others.”

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was enacted to address a series of troubling legal cases which together chiseled away the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to safeguard traditional Native Americans and other religious minorities in our country,” said Mr. Hilary O. Shelton, the Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy.   “In response, many groups from the full political spectrum came together to support RFRA and ensure that government action may only substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion if it is in the furtherance of a compelling government interest, and is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.  Sadly, from Indiana to North Carolina, and from Georgia to Mississippi, a number of misguided extremist legislators have tried to obfuscate the intent of the federal RFRA.  The NAACP would like to congratulate, commend, and thank Congressmen Kennedy and Scott for introducing the Do No Harm Act, which makes clear that the American value of religious freedom is best when it also respects the rights of all Americans.” 

“Religious freedom does not give anyone the right to discriminate. Numerous cases have shown that RFRA as written can lead to unacceptable civil rights violations,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “President Trump’s religious liberty executive order signed on May 4 lays the groundwork for RFRA to be further misused as a license to discriminate. It’s now more important than ever to pass the Do No Harm Act to prevent discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.”

“Religious freedom is a core American value. However, religious freedom claims should never be used as a guise for unfair and unjust treatment that undercut other people's fundamental rights,” said David Stacy, Government Affairs Director of the Human Rights Campaign. “We commend Representatives Kennedy and Scott for introducing this critically important legislation that will preserve the core protections of the federal RFRA, while ensuring that it cannot be used to violate essential non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

“The National Women’s Law Center supports the Do No Harm Act, which stands for the principle that religion should never be used to harm others,” said Gretchen Borchelt, Vice President for Reproductive Rights and Health at the National Women’s Law Center. “We’ve seen religion used to deny reproductive health care, provide women with fewer benefits and less pay, and fire individuals for their decisions about whether and how to start a family.  That is not religious liberty; that is discrimination. We thank Representatives Kennedy and Scott for their leadership in making it clear that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be misused to undermine basic civil rights and liberties.”

“Increasingly, religion is being used to justify discrimination against women and families, in health care and in the workplace,” said Debra L. Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families.  “We commend Representatives Joe Kennedy and Bobby Scott for introducing the Do No Harm Act and leading efforts to make clear that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s protections of the exercise of religion cannot be used to deny women access to reproductive health care or other services, or undermine civil rights protections.” 

The legislation has received support from the following advocacy and expert organizations: Abortion Care Network, Advocates for Youth, American Atheists, American Civil Liberties Union, American Humanist Association, American Psychological Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Anti-Defamation League, Basic Rights Oregon, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, BiNet USA, Call To Action, Catholics for Choice, Center for American Progress, Center for Black Equity, Center for Inquiry, Center for Reproductive Rights, DignityUSA, Disciples Action Network, Disciples Center for Public Witness, Equal Partners in Faith, Equality California, Equality Federation, Family Equality Council, Feminist Majority, FORGE, Inc., Friends Committee on National Legislation, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), GLSEN, Hindu American Foundation, Human Rights Campaign, Institute for Science and Human Values, Interfaith Alliance, Lambda Legal, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Legal Voice, LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, Medical Students for Choice, Movement Advancement Project, NAACP, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), National Association of Social Workers, National Black Justice Coalition, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Council of Jewish Women, National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, National Partnership for Women and Families, National Women's Law Center, NEAT - National Equality Action Team, NMAC, Nursing Students for Sexual & Reproductive Health, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, OutServe - Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), Physicians for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Pride at Work, Pro-Choice Resources, Religious Institute, Reproductive Health Access Project, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Policy Institute, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), The Trevor Project, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Unitarian Universalist Association, Whitman-Walker Health, and Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)

For a full list of quotes in support of the introduction of the Do No Harm Act from each endorsing organization, please click here

For full text of the Do No Harm Act, please click here

Press Contact

Kiara Pesante (Scott), 202-225-4527
Emily Kaufman (Kennedy), 617-332-3333